One of every five deaths in the United States is caused by cancer, according to a 2006 report by the National Center for Health Statistics. So, we know cancer touches nearly every one of us in one way or another.

The silver lining in this dark cloud is that the National Cancer Institute reports there are an estimated 9.8 million cancer survivors in the U.S. Three in five still will be living five years from now and 14% of all survivors have been alive 20 years or more since their diagnosis, the NCI tells us.

Earlier detection, more effective and more aggressive treatment, and a generally higher degree of understanding of the disease and its causes have combined to change the face of cancer. For many people, cancer has become less of a death sentence and more of a chronic disease.

The life insurance industry is taking notice. Today, life insurance is more widely available to cancer survivors than ever before, including those who have been treated for breast cancer, prostate cancer and non-melanoma skin cancers. These breakthroughs are due in large part to new approaches in how life insurers manage risks. The result for your customers can be significant: shorter waiting periods to obtain coverage, lower costs and, most importantly, availability of coverage for people who were previously uninsurable.

That is particularly good news for anyone who has an older clientele. If you are in the wealth transfer, estate planning or business continuation markets, you may come into contact with older clients who have health issues, particularly prostate cancer and breast cancer. These diseases have presented real barriers to obtaining life insurance in the past.

Within the past year, though, some life insurers have broken new ground by deciding to make life insurance available at standard rates to women who have been treated for low levels of breast cancer. And at least one life insurer is offering standard rates to men age 60 and older who have been surgically treated for moderate levels of prostate cancer. Previously, men and women treated for these diseases had to pay substantially more for coverage, had to wait several years before qualifying for coverage at any price, or both.

The underwriting guidelines for breast cancer and prostate cancer vary by life insurer. In the instance of breast cancer, some forward-thinking companies now make individual life insurance policies available at standard rates to women who have been treated for the first time for small (one centimeter or less), well-differentiated, localized stage one breast cancer and who have a strong prognosis for survival based on the results of common tests.

Because breast cancer is known to affect one of every eight women in the U.S. at some time in her life, the greater affordability and availability of life insurance for breast cancer survivors impacts a significant number of women. The NCI reports that 200,000 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer. With the new underwriting guidelines in place, as many as 15% of those treated for T1a and T1b, early stage breast cancer, in the past five years–more than 100,000 women–would be eligible for life insurance policies at standard rates.

Women with more aggressive breast cancers may find life insurance is available to them, as well, albeit at higher rates. Of course, anyone treated for this type of early stage cancer more than five years ago would likely be classified as a standard risk.

Making life insurance more widely available to women treated for breast cancer and men treated for prostate cancer signals a fresh approach to managing life insurance risks. Life insurers, in assessing risks, traditionally have relied upon a historical view of mortality, looking in the rearview mirror to chart a course. Implementing the new underwriting standards for breast cancer and other cancers demands something more.

With breast cancer, for instance, we know that it’s sometimes difficult to dissect the impact of specific treatments or health conditions on mortality. Conversely, we now know that health factors such as the existence of positive hormone receptors within a breast cancer patient generally mean a better prognosis.

It’s also reasonable to expect that the latest advances in detection and treatment will result in future mortality improvements. We just can’t measure the impact of these advances today because we don’t have years of experience with them.

But do we really need to have decades of experience to factor these advances into our judgments? Why not consider them when evaluating a life insurance application? Life insurers are starting to do just that, taking information from the past and applying it to the future. They are taking a forward-looking approach instead of settling for only a rearward view. The end result has obvious benefits to consumers and, in the long run, to life insurers, too.

The first pioneers in this approach are already well down this path. More insurers are sure to follow as mortality continues to improve and as new medical breakthroughs make measurable differences in both the quantity and quality of years people live.

New treatments are on the horizon. Breakthroughs in molecular medicine and the ability to customize treatments to match an individual patient’s genetic makeup are coming and will eventually allow quantum leaps in the effectiveness of cancer treatments. These and other medical developments will accelerate the long-term trend of people living longer. Already, we have seen the initial effects as prices for life insurance have declined dramatically in the past decade.

Providing greater access to life insurance for people with breast cancer, prostate cancer and other cancers is not the only benefit. These actions ultimately affirm the progress made against these diseases, particularly improvements in detection and treatment. Our actions call attention to the progress and cast a ray of hope to thousands of families nationwide.

The life insurance industry has arrived at a juncture for how it manages risks and how it prices product. We can continue to look backward and cling to history. Or we can choose to look forward with optimism and hope.